INDIANAPOLIS — A crash on the first lap of the IndyCar season-opening race, then again six weeks later on the opening lap at Long Beach.
Helio Castroneves’ miserable start to the season has stretched through all five races, including last week on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where an engine failure during practice cost him an entire on-track session.
Now it’s time to prepare for the Indianapolis 500 and Castroneves, one of only four four-time winners, is hoping “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is where he and Meyer Shank Racing can turn their season around. Castroneves and teammate Simon Pagenaud are 21st and 23rd in the standings – the second-lowest ranked full-time organization in IndyCar behind only A.J. Foyt Racing.
“I’m not panicked, but I never like to run poorly. Never,” team owner Michael Shank told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “This is not something I take lightly. I want to go over and pound the wall with my head. That’s what I really want to do.
“But we need to show strength within the organization so that we can overcome some of these obstacles. And when we do, it will be super sweet.”
Castroneves has a similar attitude, likening it to what seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton is going through as Hamilton tries to help Mercedes rebuild its current car into a contender.
“Sometimes there are moments that I think anyone, not only myself, but anyone, they go through a bad situation,” Castroneves said. “But it happens and I don’t put myself into any category like ‘Oh, why me?’ No. I’ve just got to continue moving on and working hard, and sometimes you have to look into other areas and that’s what we are doing now.”
Problem is, MSR is struggling to diagnose why its cars are not competitive. Castroneves’ 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway is the only top-10 for either driver this season; Castroneves and Pagenaud, once teammates at Team Penske, have a combined five Indy 500 wins and one IndyCar championship.
“The start of the season has been no good,” said Pagenaud. “I’m trying as hard as I can and my teammate is, as well. It’s honestly just very tough. We haven’t had good luck. We’ve had crashes. We’ve had mistakes.
“We’ve just got to regroup and hope that at some point things turn around.”
It would be fantastic if it happened at Indianapolis, where Castroneves in 2021 earned his fourth victory in the Indy 500 in what was Shank’s first career IndyCar win. The Castroneves victory helped Shank expand in 2022 to two full-time cars with the Brazilian given one of the seats. Jack Harvey had decided to leave the team so Shank snapped up Pagenaud, who rebuffed a Penske offer to move to sports car racing in favor of remaining in the IndyCar series.
Shank liked that Castroneves and Pagenaud had a previous working relationship and friendship, and it’s paid dividends for Pagenaud as this season has not produced the results they expected. The two were part of Shank’s season-opening IMSA win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (which was later tainted by a massive penalty for tire pressure manipulation), but the IndyCar program has been a major struggle.
Shank said he’s willing to make wholesale personnel changes to the organization – and that includes drivers – “either this year or next year to get the results we need.”
But there’s nothing immediate planned with full attention on the May 28 race.
“Right now we’re fully focused on getting something this week and next week, this is what really counts for us, and how can we maximize,” Shank said. “I’ve got two really good boys at this place. They know exactly what they need. If it’s not right, they pull in so we can fix it. We’re doing everything we can to turn this thing around over the next two weeks.”
Castroneves by nature is upbeat and enthusiastic, even in the darkest of times.
“Life is a challenge. It is full of tests,” he said. “I don’t think this is a test, to be honest. I think this is just a way to show that when you’re down, you’re able to rise. You’re able to work and instead of looking for problems, you are looking for solutions. Maybe I am getting old but it is actually motivating me to keep going and finding answers.”
Castroneves, who turned 48 earlier this month, has won two Rolex 24’s at Daytona and the Indy 500 with Shank and doesn’t want to transition out of a full-time ride at the end of the season. It comes amid mounting pressure on Shank to give reigning IMSA champion Tom Blomqvist a shot in IndyCar, but Castroneves is not paying attention to the speculation just yet.
“Nobody wants to be where I’m running,” Castroneves said. “But I don’t want to all of a sudden say something – like, it’s easy to call it quits. That’s not me. So no, I would like to do a full IndyCar season.”
That attitude and approach from Castroneves has been helpful as Pagenaud – one of the drivers collected with Castroneves in the season-opening first lap crash – has dealt with his disappointing start.
“Just his presence because he is joyful, finds a good level even when days are tough,” Pagenaud said. “I’m a little more of a grinder and some days are tough to kind of grind and dig and get better as a team. That can be tough on people sometimes. It’s tough on myself, definitely tough on everybody. Helio is not grumpy. I don’t know how he does it.”